This should not be who we are: Mahdi Hashi’s rendition and solitary confinement

In the last 10 days, the story of Mahdi Hashi’s hunger strike has seeped, barely, into the public sphere. There has been one “official” tweet about Hashi’s failing health, as he entered his fourth week of a hunger strike at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. There have been few stories about it since that tweet.

Hashi’s name is not well known, but his treatment at the hands of the U.S. and U.K. over the last year should give pause. A British citizen of Somali descent, he migrated to England at a young age with his parents. At 18, he was a community youth worker, and was continually pressured by MI5 (the British equivalent of the CIA) to cooperate with them and spy on fellow Somalis (akin to the tactics of the FBI and the NYPD). Growing tired of their harassment, Hashi filed a complaint with his local MP Frank Dobson in 2009.  As well, he spoke with a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, which recorded his story (see pp.18-20 of pdf). ​

But things became worse. On several occasions, he was detained at British airports, interrogated and warned against leaving. On one occasion, after having been interrogated at Gatwick Airport, he insisted on continuing his trip to Djbouti to visit his grandmother, only to be detained and interrogated for hours there. He was refused entry and sent back to the U.K. Finally, escaping the unceasing harassment, Hashi moved to Somalia, where he married and had a child. In mid-2012, at the age of 23, Hashi disappeared altogether. Worried, his family appealed to the British government, who informed them that their hands were tied, because—alas—he was no longer a citizen.

Perhaps because he renounced it, you speculate. Not quite. The British government disfranchised him.  British Home Secretary Theresa May stripped him of his citizenship, which she informed him by letter:

“As Secretary of State, I hereby give notice … that I intend to have an order made to deprive Mahdi Mohamed Hashi of your British citizenship.

‘This is because I am satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good to do so. The reason for this decision is that the Security Service assess that you have been involved in Islamicist (sic) extremism and present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom due to your extremist activities.’

May has made it a signature of her tenure to strip 17 others of their citizenship, in each case doing so after they left the country. All but one (Anna Chapman, the Russian spy) were Muslim. Technically, the British state may only do this when a person has dual citizenship, in order to avoid leaving a person stateless. Still, it is difficult to argue that Hashi could have turned to the Somali government to defend him, even if he had learned of the decision before he disappeared. May’s letter to Hashi was dated several weeks before he was rendered to the United States.

The ease and timing of the British decision is worthy of harsh and loud criticism.  Hashi had never been arrested in the U.K. However, at age 16, he was held in an Egyptian jail for nine days for a visa that still had  two weeks left before renewal was needed. That event, which Hashi reported to the advocacy group Cage Prisoners back in 2010, was somehow linked to suspected terrorist activity, although it is unclear whether there was evidence to back that suspicion. It is also unclear what constitutes evidence of “Islamicist extremism.”  By the time he moved to Somalia, there were still no evident ties to terrorists — except insofar as his work with British Somali youth was automatically assumed to be such a tie. In other words, Hashi’s guilt was through his association with other Somalis.

For the British, whose collusion with the U.S. on most things “counterterrorism” is noteworthy, this was an occasion to let someone else deal with the “problem” of Mahdi Hashi. As Paul Pillar, an ex-CIA employee suggests in this very good article by the Guardian’s Ian Cobain on the British collaboration with the U.S.:

From the United Kingdom point of view, if it is going to be a headache for anyone: let the Americans have the headache.

In other contexts — outside of America’s counterterrorism practices, where accusing young men of criminal and terrorist activities without evidence is endorsed uncritically in the name of national security by all good Americans – we call such suspicion in the absence of evidence racism. When the NYPD does it, we call it racial profiling.

African-AmericanLatino and Muslim communities in New York are intimately familiar with the judgment of “guilt by association.”

Hashi was detained, abused, and interrogated in Djbouti for several months before being handed over for more interrogations to the Americans. After several months, he suddenly appeared in handcuffs in a Brooklyn Federal Court right before Christmas of 2012, along with 2 Swedish men of Somali descent.

No news had been heard about Hashi until Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, when Cage Prisoners reported that he had been on a hunger strike and that his health was failing.

The MCC, where Hashi is being held in solitary confinement, did not confirm that he was on a hunger strike or that he was in critical condition. According to Saghir Hussain, the solicitor for Hashi’s family, they learned of his strike through a phone call with Hashi, which was interrupted “after about 60 seconds or so.” Calls to Hashi’s attorney, Harry Batchelder, were not returned.

According to Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, the organization that originally tweeted out the news, “He was in hospital for a week due to his hunger strike. He was diagnosed with jaundice. He was released from the hospital after one week. As far as we know he’s still on a hunger strike.”

He does not appear to have been force-fed yet. The Hashi family was unable to learn much more because of the special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed on him.

According to Mafille, Hashi is refusing food in a last ditch effort to have the SAM’s, which have imposed extremely limited contact with his family, removed.  SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone including family members and attorneys. SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. These determinations are often based on guilt by association with an organization or individual, as for persons of Somali descent who may have donatedeven a small amount of money for charitable purposes to groups affiliated with Al-Shabaab.

No new details in Hashi’s case were heard until last Wednesday, several days after his hunger strike and failing liver had been reported. Independently, it appears, CBS News reported that a new document was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and his co-defendants, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files.

The letter, by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, alleges that they had substantial knowledge that al-Qaida was building a chemical weapons factory, and that they had substantial countersurveillance expertise. I have written about Lynch’s allegations in more detail elsewhere, but here it’s noteworthy that there has been no mention of their supposed familiarity with a chemical weapons program or countersurveillance expertise until now.

It’s also worth noting the timing of Lynch’s letter. It is entered into Hashi’s and the others’ files one month after the chemical gas attack in Syria, and four months since Edward Snowden’s leaked documents confirmed extensive NSA surveillance of American citizens, foreign nationals and international citizens alike. And perhaps it’s also worth noting that those revelations were met by the standard National Security response that surveillance was needed to foil the terrorists, who presumably had superior intelligence capacities.

Lynch’s letter also requests separate appearances for all three defendants on the grounds that their terrorist “proclivities” might cause death or bodily injury to others, or to themselves. Given that their SAMs probably mandate extremely restrictive conditions with negligible contact with anyone or anything, it’s unclear how exactly they could be a danger to anyone.

Last week, a Twitter account called @StatelessMahdi tweeted a picture of Hashi’s mother standing outside the US embassy in London, holding a sign that says “Free Mahdi Hashi.”  It reminds me of the pictures of Yusef Salaam’s mother who, in 1989, would appear at her teenaged son’s trial wearing a “Yusef is Innocent” T-shirt.

In Ken Burns’ recent documentary “The Central Park Five,” there is footage of Sharonne Salaam encountering jeering and laughing crowds on her way into the courtroom, wearing a T-shirt declaring her son’s innocence.  These were crowds who were convinced of New York Daily News’ headlines, naming Salaam and the 4 other black teenagers as part of a “Wolf Pack,” as marauders, animals, brutes who preyed on a young white woman, known as the Central Park Jogger. Many other newspapers across the country followed suit in sensationalizing the racial dimensions of the case. They convicted the teenagers by media, as did Mayor Edward Koch, then aspiring mayor David Dinkins, Donald Trump and others. Trump went as far as spending $85,000 to publish full-page ads in four daily New York City newspapers, demanding the return of the death penalty and more police for these “roving band of wild criminals.”

As we know today, Salaam and the other four teenagers would spend years in jail after having been railroaded into false confessions. As we also know today, they were innocent of any wrongdoing. As in Salaam’s case, the signs that Hashi was going to be profiled were there when he was a mere teenager, well before his disappearance from Somalia.

The U.S. has become a nation that zealously kidnaps men from foreign countries on the scantest suspicion of being threats to the U.S. and tortures them for indefinite amounts of time. Yes, solitary confinement is torture. Hashi and his co-defendants are three among many such men held here in the U.S. — outside of Guantánamo. Many have still not been charged.

This should not be who we are.

If Lynch’s allegations that Hashi and his co-defendants have substantial knowledge of a chemical weapons programs and are countersurveillance experts, then we need to have a speedy and open trial to see exactly how that expertise was acquired — and how the U.S. obtained that evidence. If Hashi is indeed guilty, that fact will not be established through secret interrogations or unlawful renditions. If he is guilty, that fact won’t be established by secret evidence or tortuous SAMs that eliminate his ability to have contact with the outside world.  It will only be established through a lawful prosecution, a vigorous defense, timely evidence and a transparent trial. The U.S. government’s case against Hashi can only be enhanced by treating him and his co-defendants humanely and sharing the evidence with the public. Until then, skepticism and doubts about the ethics of this nation’s counterterrorism practices will and should prevail.

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This article appeared in Salon.com today under the title: “This is counterrrorism?: The Shocking Story of Mahdi Hashi”

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Loretta Lynch alleges Mahdi Hashi is a chemical weapons and countersurveillance expert!

One week ago, a little-noticed tweet announced that Mahdi Hashi, a British-Somali young man who disappeared from his home in Somalia in mid-2012 and suddenly appeared in a Brooklyn Federal Court last December on terrorism-related charges, had been on a hunger strike and hospitalized with jaundice and potential of liver damage.  Shortly before Hashi disappeared (and rendered, as it turns out), the British government stripped Hashi of his citizenship on the grounds that he was engaged in “Islamicist activities.” (See links below to read more about Hashi’s situation).

In a phone call, Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, indicated that Hashi’s strike is in protest of the extreme Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) imposed on him, including restricted contact with his family. According to Saghir Hussain, the lawyer for Hashi’s family,

“The information was provided by MH to his father over a short telephone conversation, which was interrupted by the authorities after “60 seconds or so.”

SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and with extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone, including family members.  SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. Laura Rovner and Jeanne Theoharris have written extensively about SAM’s here; Theoharis also describes the horrific details of SAM’s in relation to one of her former students, Fahad Hashmi.

Four days after news of Hashi’s hunger strike, CBS News reported that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and two others who had been indicted alongside hime, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files. The letter alleges that Hashi had substantial knowledge was chemical weapons expert and was helping Al-Qaeda build a chemical weapons factory. The story itself is a fascinating confirmation of the thesis that the press is the government’s helper. The document “alleges,” but the press believes the allegations unconditionally.

I can’t get the video to embed, so here’s the link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57603620/court-document-references-al-qaeda-linked-chemical-weapons-program-in-somalia/

Notice the “critical” comments by CBS “This Morning” host, Charlie Rose, as he and Norah O’Donnell consult with CBS Senior Correspondent, former assistant CIA Direct, John Miller.

The last few weeks have been filled with reports about chemical weapons being used in Syria, but this morning a new filing in an obscure terrorism case is confirming something long feared: a chemical weapons program run by Al-Qaeda.

Miller, the canny investigative reporter that he is, notices that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into Mahdi Hashi’s, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohammed Yusuf’s files, which point to their expertise in helping Al-Qaeda develop a chemical weapons program!

The causal overdeterminations made in this short segment are fascinating: The letter, dated September 18, 2013, was written by US Attorney Loretta Lynch. According to Rose and Miller, it confirms the existence of a chemical weapons program by Al-Qaeda, which had been LONG FEARED.

In fact, the letter confirms nothing of the sort, except that this is what the US Government is claiming in order to restrict Hashi, Ahmed, and Yusuf from any access to the outside world, and perhaps other untold, more extreme, measures. Lynch’s letter also specifies that the SAM’s restrict their access to “each other” (presumably because they might conspire to…something(?). I suspect that Lynch’s phrase indicates that they also have no contact with anyone, i.e., they are each being held in solitary confinement, though I have found no explicit evidence of this yet.

Neither Rose, O’Donnell, nor Miller question the timing of the letter—nor do they explain the purpose of the letter–in making this causal connection.

Let’s consider the October and November superseding indictments of Hashi and his alleged co-terrorists, and Lynch’s letter. Up until today, all three had been indicted on fairly general charges: (1) a “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism,” which by most measures is an extremely weak charge, usually indicating little concrete evidence, if any, that can convincingly link a person to terrorist activity; (2) Material support to a foreign terrorist organization; and (3) Firearms.There is no mention of chemical weapons or counterterrorism intelligence expertise in initial indictment.

Now, the thrust of Lynch’s letter was to request separate appearances for all three defendants. Lynch does so presumably on the same grounds by which Special Administrative Measures were ordered for them (also mentioned in the letter), namely because

The Attorney General, in directing that such restrictions be implemented, previously found that “[b]ased upon information provided to me of [the defendants’] proclivity for terrorism . . . there is substantial risk that [the defendants’] communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, or substantial damage to property that would entail the risk of serious bodily injury to persons.

Indeed in the last part of the letter, Lynch states that separate appearances are requested because of the above grounds and

To minimize the potential for violations of the defendants’ SAMs during their appearance in Court and for the safety of the defendants themselves.

The safety of the defendants themselves?? From whom? Each other? From Al-Qaeda? They, like the rest of us, are already aware that these three are in prison..

Even a vegan can recognize red herring when they see one. Consider the timing of this letter. It is filed

-after ten months of silence in Hashi’s et al’s cases, and only five days after word of his hunger strike.

– fewer than 2 months after the news about chemical weapons attack in Syria, which tempted the Administration to launch a military attack in Syria.

-fewer than 4 months since Edward Snowden leaked documents confirming extensive NSA surveillance of all American citizens, non-citizens, foreigners—EVERYONE. Those revelations prompted renewed calls for transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama Administration, which has been reeling defensively and searching for new ways to make the case that the US MUST spy on everyone for the purposes of national security.

Claiming “Al-Qaeda!” will surely remind us of the need for spying. And sure enough, CBS News responded appropriately about the “confirmation” of a chemical weapons program developed through “commercial” and widely available ingredients.

Nor does CBS question why, after extremely vague charges filed despite months of interrogations, there are suddenly such specific allegations such as,

(2) the defendants have extensive weapons and combat training and were formerly members of an elite al-Shabaab suicide bombing unit.

and

(4) the defendants are dangerous and influential foreign al-Shabaab fighters who have previously employed operational tradecraft and counter surveillance techniques to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.

One wonders how sophisticated Hashi could have been in avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities if he was scooped up as easily as he was.

I could be mistaken, but I believe this is the first time that allegations associating Hashi with chemical weapons or countersurveillance expertise have ever been made.

The rhetorical use of “expert” is fascinating given that the chemicals that are being used are most likely elementary. Household bleach thrown at a group of people can be a chemical weapons attack. It doesn’t have to be sarin gas (as Charlie Rose evokes in the segment in connection to the subway sarin attacks in Japan).

Are Hashi et al chemical weapons experts? Or are they new faces to map on convenient chemical weapons and countersurveillance accusations in support of the general War on Terror?

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Other stories about Mahdi Hashi:

https://translationexercises.wordpress.com/tag/mahdi-hashi/

http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/01/04/the-disposition-of-informants-and-citizens/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-how-mi5-blackmails-british-muslims-1688618.html

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/blog/2013/02/26/medieval-exile-the-21-britons-stripped-of-their-citizenship/

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/14/obama-secret-kill-list-disposition-matrix

Swedish Government Lodges No Protest in the Rendition of 2 Swedish Citizens

Revised.

On the quiet first day of the New Year, the Washington Post published a quiet little story about the renditions of 3 young men from Somalia to the US shortly before Christmas. I wrote about them last week, in particular about Mahdi Hashi, whose British citizenship was stripped for “Islamic extremism,” shortly before he disappeared from near his home in August. At the time, I could find little to confirm whether the other two, Mohamed Yusuf and Ali Yasin Ahmed, were Swedish citizens.

WaPo confirms that they are indeed Swedish citizens. It also confirms that the US allowed them visits from Swedish diplomats. Strikingly absent was protest or objection by Sweden to the illegal rendering of their citizens. Rather, they insisted that

This does not mean that the Swedish government has taken any position on the issue of their guilt or innocence…That is a question for the U.S. judicial system.

What makes Sweden’s refusal to lodge a protest even more egregious is the following statement:

Authorities in Sweden and Britain had monitored the three men for years as they traveled back and forth to Somalia, but neither country assembled enough evidence to press criminal charges.

Insufficient evidence to press criminal charges—despite the fact that the Swedish authorities were following them for years. It is possible that that they were being followed before Al-Shabab was declared a “terrorist organization”in 2008.

And still, there is no interest from Swedish authorities to object to their renditions.

Over on Lawfareblog, Matthew Waxman insists that there is NO confirmation that the renditions occurred at the direction of the U.S. government. One wonders how these men found their way to a US Federal Court in Brooklyn.  Despite his analytical caution, Waxman nevertheless insists that US cooperation with Europeans has to be carefully managed—since the US will “handle particular suspects”—presumably in otherwise objectionable ways. Thus, as Waxman concludes, there is a good

…reason to allow the President significant flexibility, especially to use civilian criminal justice avenues…

These two positions appear to be in serious tension. Moreover, as Waxman points out there is no good reason to believe that

these detainees even had due process rights to invoke in a foreign interrogation. That, in turn, depends upon two distinct issues: (1) Whether the Due Process Clause could ever apply to the interrogation of non-citizens overseas (I think it could; plenty of others don’t); and (2) even if it does, whether the interrogation was a “joint venture” for purposes of the Miranda doctrine (i.e., whether U.S. officials were sufficiently involved in the interrogation to trigger constitutional constraints).

Clearly then, if they didn’t have American due process rights, it’s probably just fine to interrogate them without a lawyer present.

On the same blog, Stephen Vladeck points out that these are hardly “extraordinary” renditions, since those are defined as kidnapping a suspected terrorist and sending him to another country to be tortured. By contrast, these men were already on Somali soil—so there was no need to kidnap them. So they were just rendered. Not extraordinarily. But ordinarily.

We are also to take, according to Vladeck, the absence of a claim that the arrest and rendition are illegal—as confirmation that they were not illegal.  But isn’t the rendition of any citizen of another country—without warrants and extradition procedures—illegal?

The following certainly seems illegal according to international law:

Sweden’s security agencies have cooperated in the past with U.S. officials on rendition cases by sharing intelligence about targets. Mark Vadasz, a spokesman for the Swedish Security Police Service, declined to comment on whether the agency played a role in the cases involving Yusuf and Ahmed.

As Kevin Gosztola points out,

Sweden has cooperated with the United States on renditions before. In 2005, a parliamentary investigator, according to the Post, concluded “CIA operatives violated Swedish law by subjecting the prisoners to ‘degrading and inhuman treatment’ and by exercising police powers on Swedish soil.” Sweden covered up the rendition of Egyptians from Stockholm to Cairo in 2001 for three years before, in 2004, unofficial reports of CIA involvement began to surface. No Swedish officials were charged by the parliamentary investigator in 2005, but it was concluded the Swedish security police had been “remarkably submissive to the American officials.”

That these men have been trailed, kidnapped and rendered—despite the fact that Sweden could not find sufficient evidence to press criminal charges against them—suggests a number of interesting implications:

  1. Sweden’s standard of criminal evidence is much more stringent than that of the US.
  2. They are willing to be “flexible” about the standards of evidence of other countries that want to render their citizens..
  3. They are willing to abnegate their own standard at the request of the U.S.
  4. They may be just as willing to abnegate that standard for Julian Assange, if they have the opportunity.

Hashi’s story also suggests some sort of collaboration between the US and the UK. As Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported, Hashi had reported being harassed by British intelligence agents to become an informant. He finally left for Somalia, after continually refusing.  He also is charged with collaborating with Al-Shabab which, despite its recent placement on the US’s list of terrorist organizations, is reported to be a group challenging the UN-backed Ethiopian government in Somalia, and thus is part of Somalia’s internal civil war.

As WaPo reports,

Still, Obama administration officials acknowledge that most al-Shabab fighters are merely participants in Somalia’s long-running civil war and that only a few are involved in international terrorism.

Moreover, Al-Shabab is also one of the primary organizations that distributes funds for a variety of purposes, including charity.

Neither of these facts appear to have given the UK pause before stripping Hashi of his citizenship. Nor have these facts stopped the US Department of Justice from prosecuting a young Somali woman for having sent $1450 to Al-Shabab for charitable purposes. She was convicted of violating US material support statutes. In comparison, HSBC was involved in similar, but systematic and deliberate activities to a much higher degree. Coincidentally, HSBC bankers received no jail time. The bank was fined less than 1 month’s profits for their activities.

So far, the UK and Sweden have illustrated their intentions to cooperate fully with the United States in rendering Muslim men even with insufficient evidence. Is Julian Assange is paranoid to believe that if he were to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he has sought refuge after having been granted political asylum, he would easily be whisked to the United States with the cooperation of the Swedish and British governments?

Akin, Assange, and Questioning Rape

Strange moment: The right and the left have taken to debating the legitimacy of rape at the exact same time.  In order to defend his bill banning abortion in all cases, even of rape, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, Neanderthal that he be (apologies to our ancestors) has, infamously pointed out that women can’t get pregnant if it is a “legitimate rape.”* **

But don’t start laughing too self-righteously yet:  Much of the left has questioned the legitimacy of the rape allegations awaiting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as he has tried to challenge his extradition to Sweden. It’s not quite the same thing, but these events do have some points in common: A lot of folks, especially men, have felt gratuitously entitled to denounce the legitimacy of the rape allegations that are being raised against Assange. Gratuitous, because the issue of extraditing Assange to Sweden has little to do with the legitimacy of the allegations; they have to do with the concern that Sweden will allow him to be extradited to the US for leaking documents that show the US engaging, or collaborating with others, in massive wrongdoing.

That’s an important concern. Does it mean that Assange is being set up? To ask that question is to assume that the rape allegations are false. Even though we don’t need to weigh in on the allegations, many men have done exactly that: British MP George Galloway, revealing his own Neanderthal tendencies, rejected describing as rape the allegation that Assange had sex with one woman when she was sleeping.  The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, after naming at least one of them publicly, asked why the two women in question went to dinner with him after said activities, why they saw him again, why they waited to go to the police, why they were very public on their twitter accounts and elsewhere about their activities.  The implication here seems to be that if these women had “truly” been sexually assaulted, they wouldn’t have wanted to see their assaulter socially, and they would have turned their backs on him right away.

We could have a field day with these kinds of ignorant views (how exactly does one resist a sexual encounter when one is sleeping?).  To be fair, there is evidence to suggest that at least one of the women was quite distraught to hear that her testimony was being extracted to buttress potential rape charges against Assange: when she realized that this was the goal of Swedish prosecutors, she decided to cut short her cooperation. She has also suggested that she never felt threatened violently by Assange.

But let us assume that there was some sort of unwanted sexual activity imposed on either or both women: For those, like Craig Murray, who insist that if it was “really unwanted,” both of these women would have immediately distanced themselves from Assange: This translates into “it’s not really rape because they didn’t publicly, openly, visually reject Assange.”  In effect, the lefty denunciation amounts to VERY similar assessment of rape that the rightist Akin asserted: it’s not legitimate because women who are really raped will behave in ways that we expect; women who aren’t really raped will behave in ways that we expect.

It’s not a LEGITIMATE rape because the women didn’t exhibit what both groups wanted them to exhibit?!? C’mon, folks.  To question the legitimacy of sexual assault charges is to question whether others should behave as you (think you) would in those same circumstances. It assumes that the nature of coercion is always violent. It’s not. We have long known that coercion takes all sorts forms. Coercion can take all kinds of insidious, quiet forms—in relation to ethics (see US Soldiers dropping drones); finance (see Financial Crisis and Sub-Prime Loans); and rape: which is why we have categories called sexual molestation, incest, acquaintance rape and statutory rape. The latter is what Huckabee was ostensibly distinguishing from ‘forcible’ rape.

It is counter-productive for sympathetic lefties to denounce the allegations of rape against Assange. We don’t really know all the facts surrounding what happened between Assange and the two Swedish women in question. But we don’t need to know. What we do know is that the U.S. has also put much pressure (invisible—yes—coercion) on the UK to extradite Assange—because of the Obama Administrations’s now well-established track record of punishing whistle-blowers. That should be enough to question. We don’t also need to stoop to the level of the right.

What is disturbing, however, is the possibility that these rape allegations are being pursued without the consent of the women involved.  And therein lies a return to the question of coercion:  When these women (or at least one of them) decided to report her encounter with Assange to the police, it appears to be because he was uninterested in responding to her request to be tested for STD’s. It might have also been for other acts that resemble what we associate with sexual assault or rape. It is unclear whether the women in question are translating their interactions with Assange as rape or sexual assault.

And so, unrelated to Assange or whistleblowing altogether, is the question of how to protect women (or anyone) who translates what happened to them as rape, without undermining those women who interpret certain acts that happened to them, not as rape but some other violation. This is an issue that urges the importance of making distinctions—not by those who are bystanders—but by those who were the subjects of these violations. Whether someone is raped (assuming they are adults) is best determined by s/he who is subject of the violation–and if with her consent, the procedure goes further—by a properly instructed, properly selected jury that has heard ALL the evidence. We may not like the outcome, we may disagree with the interpretation. But short of imposing a colonial judgment (that a woman is the victim of false consciousness, or doesn’t know better), we need to let those who are directly subject to an offensive act decide what it is, and ask for help accordingly,—without the denunciations of bystanders, or other nations pursuing barely-concealed designs on the accused.

_____________________________________

*Mike Huckabee, former presidential candidate and governor of Arkansas, has tried to defend Akin by distinguishing between forcible rape and “unforced rape.  Frankly, it’s hard to know how Huckabee’s comment is helping to “defend” Akin; doesn’t his point about how “extraordinary people are the result of “forcible” rape kinda disprove Akin’s point about rape-induced non-pregnancy?

**President Obama, realizing that this was a win-win-win situation (he could simultaneously 1. denounce Republican Akin, 2. Julian Assange AND 3. put in a plug for his own healthcare plan) didn’t miss out on a chance to offer a meaningless tautology: “Rape is rape.”

Shrien Dewani, Julian Assange, and British Justice

 
 
“…[V]iolence… threatens [the law] not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.  The same may be…suggested, if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however, repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public.”
Walter Benjamin, The Critique of Violence
 
 

In December 2010, we saw the British justice system take action in two separate events related to crimes against Swedish women.  In the first Shrien Dewani, a British citizen of Indian descent, was accused of soliciting, paying for, and coordinating the horrific murder of his Swedish bride of two weeks, Anni Dewani, while on their honeymoon in South Africa the November prior. Anni Dewani was kidnapped at gunpoint, and was later found naked, beaten, and dead from a bullet through the neck after a dinner trip to the Gugulethu township in Cape Town.   Three men, including the driver of the limo, have been charged. Two have already begun long prison terms. One of them had his sentence reduced after implicating Dewani, a multimillionaire.  Detained in England at the request of the South African government, Dewani was released after his family put up £250,000 bail several days later.  He was tagged with an electronic ankle bracelet, subjected to curfews, his movements restricted, and required to report to the police daily.

At almost the same time, Julian Assange was also detained in England at the request of another government. He was (and is still) wanted for questioning in Sweden in the course of an investigation into possible sexual misconduct.  Since, even 18 months later, charges have still not been filed, we cannot be certain of the offense, but early indications were that he could be charged with continuing to have sex with one woman despite a broken condom,* and having failed to answer a police summons to be tested for STD’s; this crime is punishable by up to two years in prison.  He is also being investigated for a second crime, namely of having “sex by surprise” with another woman; this charge, if he were to be arrested and convicted, would carry a fine of 5,000 kronor, or $715.  While the circumstances surrounding these events are murky; at least one of the possible victims told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in an interview that, “It is quite wrong that we were afraid of him. He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him.”  She elaborated that, “The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women.” Assange was initially denied bail, but at a later hearing was allowed £200,000 bail, with the additional requirement of  £40,000 in two separate sureties of  £20,000 each.  Released after nine days in jail, he faced an extradition hearing.  Like Dewani, he had to wear an electronic bracelet that monitored his movement.  His movements were restricted in house arrest fashion; he had curfews, and, had to report to the police daily.

All of this, of course, until his stay of execution ran out in June 2012. Assange then sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK, and requested political asylum. As of today, we know the upshot: The Brits threatened to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy. The Ecuadorian Embassy decided to give Assange asylum. The Brits refuse to give Assange safe passage to Ecuador, and remain outside the Ecuadorian Embassy ready to arrest him should he step outside.

It is rather interesting that Assange and Dewani had nearly identical conditions surrounding their detention.  Certainly, sexual abuse and murder are each serious charges; neither Dewani nor Assange should be exculpated without a proper judicial process.  However, there is a bizarre contrast in the treatment accorded to each when comparing the substance of the crimes in question. Dewani’s appear to be about coordinating and paying for the vicious murder of his own wife; still, he was almost immediately able to qualify for bail. Moreover, despite the vigorous protests of the South African national prosecutors office — an office that has already gained convictions in the case — he was released pending an extradition hearing. In March 2012, despite promises on the part of the South African prosecutor in charge of Dewani’s hearing, he was granted a stay by the London’s High Court. Why? Because “High Court judge Sir John Thomas said it would be unjust and oppressive to send Dewani back to South Africa in his present condition.” That is to say, Dewani was heard telling family that he would kill himself if extradited. As we all know, threats to self-inflicted harm are a fairly popular way to persuade the judge not to send you somewhere you don’t want to go: like to jail, to stand trial, or to be extradited to South Africa.**

As of today, Dewani is still in England, while two of his accomplices have been convicted, and sentenced to 18 and 25 years in prison, respectively, and the trial of one other accomplice in South Africa goes on.

I am thrilled by the UK’s zeal in wanting to protect the sexual rights of women. Seriously, it is a delight to know that the UK, like the US, and of course like that bastion of women’s rights, Sweden, has the interests of women at heart. But I wish that they could apply consistent, or even proportional standards to suspects like Dewani—as they do to Julian Assange. But as we know, perhaps all isn’t as it seems; this situation reminds me human rights activists like Former First Lady Laura Bush, who pointed out her deep concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan—coincidentally around the same time as Hubby Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan.

Whatever Assange’s crimes, unlike the US and the UK, they do not appear to include premeditated violence. It is not irrelevant that Assange is being sought after for some of the most daring non-violent ‘crimes’ that the world has seen since Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers: exposing the reckless and remorseless criminal actions of the United States and allied governments as they collectively pursue their “War on Terror.”  Its name aside, this war is not being conducted against a noun.  It includes real violence towards real people in real countries, with terrible effects on civilian populations; unsavory engagements with odious dictators; and sundry violations of long-standing agreements in favor of human rights and against arbitrary search, seizure, and torture.

Let’s consider the argument that Moe Tkacik made about the relevance of the suspicions about Assange to his position as Wikileaks courier. She points out that Assange is accused by two women for trying the sleazy trick of pulling off his condom in the middle of sex—and pretending it was an accident. As she argued shortly before she left the Washington City Paper:

The question of whether Assange is an incorrigible douchebag (and also, a liar) would only decisively matter if he was asking (or more likely knowing what we know, presumptuously expecting) us to take his word for it that Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t travel anywhere without his Bedouin tents and voluptuous Ukrainian nurse or the Arab Gulf states are privately rooting for the us to start shooting missiles at Iran, etc. etc. But trusting the judgment of those who impart information is actually the precise opposite of the point of Wikileaks; the organization he founded is by design merely a high-profile courier; what impact would have on your credit card bills if it turned out that your letter carrier was into child porn?\
 
Which is why all the media deconstruction of Assange’s seemingly well-cultivated mystique seems so suspiciously irrelevant to begin with: wouldn’t a ludicrously secretive network of ultra-sophisticated hackers be structurally impervious to any character assassination attempts on its weird-looking white-haired mascot? (Her links)
 

The actual threat posed by Julian Assange and his organization, Wikileaks, is the audacity of truth.  It is not the non-consensual (and as far as we know, non-violent) sexual acts presumably committed against two women that is source of the great criminality of Assange.  From the perspective of those who rule over us, Assange’s offense is exacerbated by the—not-so-secret—admiration of an international public, of billions of civilians across the globe who have watched in frustration as the flexing of sovereign and unchecked muscles have resulted in the widescale and often fatal bullying of innocents — women and men alike– with no repercussions, no contrition, and ultimately, no self-awareness of the fact that in the hands of Presidents Bush and Obama the rule of law has been transformed into the illusion of law: We—the US, Great Britain, France, and others in the Global North—will decide what law is, what crime is, what violence is, and you—citizens of the world will accept it, all of it, and like it.  Until, that is, great criminals like Julian Assange come along and remind us that there is a power greater than the violence of the state—a power to resist and challenge the pure acts of hooliganism, plunder, and plutocracy that the United States government and its allies defend as righteous acts of “spreading democracy.”

Does that mean that we should condone sexual deception? Not at all. Still:

  1. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden.
  2. Assange has still not been charged.
  3. It’s not clear that sexual deception, however vicious, is equivalent to sexual assault. Perhaps Sweden could accuse him of negligence or some equivalent charge. But let’s preserve the respect for victims of acquaintance rape and other forms of rape by recognizing the distinction between coercion and sexual assholishness. We might be able to construct a framework for the latter in its relationship to coercion. Still, as of yet, we don’t have a strong one, so let’s not elevate it to the complex category of rape.

Why is it that Dewani, A British citizen accused of plotting to murder his wife is receiving more lenient treatment than a man who has not yet been charged with rape?  If in fact Assange is only wanted by the Swedish authorities for questioning, they could have found some way to accommodate the very real concerns that Assange, once in Sweden, could be rushed to the United States to face an unfair trial. It’s too late for that. But perhaps, now that Ecuador has stood up to the British government, the UK might find some way to show its “honorable” intentions–by negotiating for an independent third-country investigator for Assange. And by insisting that Dewani be extradited to South Africa for the–substantive–charges that he faces.

Perhaps—even though Assange may be the great criminal, and Dewani may be a heinous criminal, too much of the world is aware of the United States and the British governments as the real—and systemic—threats to the safety of men and women around the world. Until the UK can show that it can play fair, those  perceptions will continue.

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*Or not wearing a condom.

**The last three sentences were accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this column.

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Update: Here is the judgement of the London High Court in the dispute between Assange and the Swedish Prosecution Authority, July 12, 2011. Notice especially paragraphs 149-153: The decision has been taken not to charge him at this stage. As the High Court admits, had the same set of facts occurred in England or Wales, he would have already been charged. Still, the extradition order is not yet in order to prosecute him, but to interrogate him further.